By Sofia Rivera
Picture this: You are six years old and your home is painted bright purple. Your best friend lives directly below you, and during sprawling summer days you run around together scoring free ice cream and waffles.
Your mom has hair the color of a blue raspberry Jolly Rancher and she loves fireworks and costume jewelry just as much as you do. And on top of it all, you live minutes from the magic of Disney World.
This is Moonee’s reality, as she sees it; but there is a darker side to the Sunshine State setting.
Her blue-maned mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is unemployed and spends a lot of time high and watching TV. The lavender motel is occupied by a collection of broke misfits that have made a home out of the scrappy lodging. The proximity of the ironically (or maybe hopefully) named Magic Castle Motel to Disney’s looming Magic Kingdom highlights a stark and heartbreaking disparity.
Director Sean Baker doesn’t milk the tragic potential of the poverty. He simply allows both sides of the story to tell themselves, without any superimposed judgement. Due to this laissez-faire approach to storytelling, the plot does not follow much of an arc. Instead, the camera trails Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) through the ins and outs of their summer escapades.
From the innocent (splashing in the motel pool), to the precocious (spitting on the car of a newcomer), to the accidentally criminal (setting fire to an abandoned building), there are no contrived plot points or overly romantic glints.
On the contrary, it is raw and repetitive, but intensely captivating in its banality, because every day presents a unique thrill to the kids. Poignant moments punctuate their play as well. In one scene, Moonee takes Jancey to a fallen willow in the middle of a water-logged meadow. “You know why this is my favorite tree?” Moonee asks. “Cause it’s tipped over but still growing.” Like a magic trick, it’s an instant you might miss if you’re not watching closely enough.
Watching this movie, you can’t help but feel like a kid yourself. The vibrant aesthetic is mesmerizing and the camera films from the perspective of a child, capturing adults in low-angled shots. Moonee and her crew see a pastel playground in the rundown motel, and as a viewer you start to, also. The juvenile lens allows adults to experience the hilarity in nudity, the elation in free ice cream, and the adventure in the mundane.
While a child-centric cast may seem risky, the miniature protagonists are the magic that make the film’s grayscale circumstances burst into technicolor. Moonee (Brooklyn Prince,) is a star, devastatingly cute without falling into the saccharine child actor trope, portraying strength and innocence easily in unison.
The film is breathtaking in the sense that you will hold your breath with anxiety. As the kids run around unsupervised, you are acutely aware of the many dangers that may befall them.
The relationship between Moonee and Halley adds depth to the movie, elevating it from a summer of blissfully unaware high jinx to an exploration of childhood and motherhood. Moonee and Halley are two kids, one of whom happens to be a mother. Halley throws tantrums, cons people out of money, and toes a precarious line between obnoxious and lovable— and Moonee follows suit. She spoils Moonee with dollar store luxuries, delights her with distant views of Disney fireworks, and (in an expertly executed montage) indulges her in all-you- can-eat breakfast buffets. Halley may be selfish in every other respect, but she will do anything to inject some magic into her daughter’s life.
The film’s only true adult is Bobby, the motel manager, stunningly portrayed by Williem Dafoe, the cast’s sole big-name actor. The Magic Castle’s father figure sees both sides of the story, captured by weary sighs and sly smiles. Even so, Bobby falls short. He, too, is stuck in this purgatory of a motel, trying to fill an ever-growing list of roles, from bookkeeper, to father, to rule enforcer and even law skirter. He is perpetually fixing up the motel and never finishing.
He notices that the washing machine is broken, as it has been for the entirety of the film, and says to a resident, “I’m going to fix these machines by the end of the week.” She shrugs, unbelieving and uncaring.
Like all of them, he wants to do better, but can only do so much.
This is never truer than when the plot threatens to separate Moonee and Halley indefinitely, a climax that felt inevitable but is somehow still shocking. The entire film is touched by a dreamlike quality, but the sucker- punching final scene is surreal. Disney has been ever-present but always just out of reach, and finally, it is right there at the feet of a breathless Moonee and Jancey.
Maybe the moment is just a fantasy, imagined by a six-year- old spirit on the brink of tragedy.
Maybe it’s magic.